What Makes A Government Legitimate?

Politically motivated analysts are squabbling back and forth trying to decide whether the governments of Ukraine and Crimea are legitimate, according to a story in USA Today. Russian President Vladimir Putin is justifying intervention in Crimea partly by claiming that the Ukraine government is illegitimate and has no right to say whether Crimea can decide for itself whether it should secede. Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a policy research institute in Kiev said, “This (Crimea government) is a fake parliament because it was not elected and it was proclaimed under the Russian occupation, the democratic procedure under the guns of a foreign army does not work,”.

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

Not the most valuable of opinions of course. Putin is motivated by the need to legitimize actions that he has already taken, and a policy institute in Kiev is motivated to keep Crimea under Ukrainian rule. Western Nations tend to agree with Pylynskyi, but again, there are reasons for that which have nothing to do with the facts on the ground.

Ukraine’s Constitution allows for the region of Crimea to have a certain level of autonomy, such as a local legislature to deal with some matters affecting Crimea. Crimeans do, on the other hand send representatives to the legislature in Ukraine’s central government, which reserves the right to conduct military, foreign and national economic policy. The majority party of that legislature seats the Ukrainian President.

In some ways, Crimea is comparable to a US State, and we all know what happened the last time states attempted to secede from the US.

Now, we could go into a great amount of esoteric detail on the history of Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea if we wanted to, but I’m not exactly looking to write a research paper here. Besides, history is chock full of illegitimate actions, and lies by the winners of wars and such, so there is no limit to the number of possible outcomes we can reach in that study. Instead, let us analyze what makes a government legitimate in any region of the world.

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

On the world stage, there are few who would say the Russian and US governments are illegitimate. I’m one of those few, but forget about me for a moment. Whatever your perception of these institutions, they’ve been at it awhile. They have managed to establish legitimacy in the minds of nearly all the people living within their geographical boundaries, they are recognized by the UN, they have constitutions, militaries, legislative, executive, and judicial branches, all long established.

But, how were these things established?

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

  • The length of time an institution has existed cannot be the measure of its legitimacy, because to say so would make it impossible for them to get established in the first place. 
  • The mere presence of a military cannot establish legitimacy, because it is the legitimacy alone which separates a military from a terrorist cell.
  • The writing of a constitution does not establish legitimacy, otherwise I would publish one on this website right now and become my own republic.
  • Having legislative, executive, and judicial branches does not establish legitimacy, otherwise I would simply declare myself president, and appoint my closest friends and relatives to the other branches.
  • A majority vote does not establish legitimacy, otherwise I would simply hold an election within my own household to expel the United States from my homeland (house).
  • The opinions of well paid lawyers cannot establish legitimacy, because Russian and US lawyers come to completely different conclusions based on the same information.
  • The UN cannot establish legitimacy, because the UN is created by institutions that already gained their legitimacy without its assistance.

If “the democratic procedure under the guns of a foreign army does not work” then how are the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Germany, Japan, or any number of other nations legitimate?

Let’s ask Mao Tse-tung what establishes the legitimacy of a government.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Here is the very simple truth of the matter. A government is not a “legitimate” thing. A government exists by nothing other than its ability to violently subjugate the people it intends to subjugate, and its means to kill anyone who threatens said ability. The only reason I cannot write my own constitution, hold my own elections, establish my own presidency, form my own military, gain UN recognition, hire my own well paid lawyers, and do all the other things that a sovereign nation does, is because I lack force of arms to do so. If I tried, I would be mercilessly gunned down by armed men waving American flags. If I had said force of arms, this message would be printed on letterhead reading “From the office of the Emperor of Ancapistan”.

Legitimacy or none, Russia now rules over Crimea, because Russia has force of arms to subjugate Crimeans, and to repel those who would stand in the way of their doing so. If the people of Crimea revolt and kill Russian forces until they retreat, then those who do so will become the rulers of Crimea.

Likewise, if you forcefully defend yourself and your property, then you can establish sovereignty for yourself and your property.

There is simply no other way.

  • Don Duncan

    If I deduce physical defense of myself/property to be suicidal and therefore submit to control rather than martyrdom, I do not lose my sovereignty. My sovereignty comes from my nature as a human. It is not dependent on recognition by others. It may be violated, but not revoked. I may exercise it or waive it but I cannot lose it. Therefore a contract to waive sovereignty is unenforceable legally or morally.

    When groups create a social contract which violates sovereignty it is not legally or morally enforceable. It can only be enforced by threat of force or force. And force does not create legitimacy. It follows, all states are illegitimate.

  • rrrandr

    Aren’t Canada and India examples of governments that have legitimacy, as neither was formed by force but rather through peaceful protest which in time expelled their occupiers?